HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
He drags his gun through the leaf-covered loam of the old logging road, leaving a furrow, as if for sowing seeds. His mission is clear, but unspoken: deliver his body and weapon to the forest’s center and find a doe to take home as evidence that he is who he says – a man.
Everything on him is borrowed or stolen, solely for this moment: his father’s worn gun and muddied boots, his brother’s holey white skivvies, socks, and camo pants, and his uncle’s road-cone-orange hunting vest – the one left last Thanksgiving that’s been hanging in the hallway closet, waiting to be filled again.
In being borrowed, everything is too big. The rifle he drags behind him exaggerates the smallness of his hands, that, like his feet, are either swallowed or eclipsed by the clothing of larger men. His feet don’t fill the boots and his toes rattle inside, the underwear is baggy and bunching up and rubbing between his thighs – but when he adjusts his briefs he doesn’t feel self-conscious, only like more of a man via crotch-grabbing.
His plan is simple: find the family tree stand, climb its steps, sit and wait in the silence he was told he could never appreciate – the silence of men waiting on a hunt…nothing he would understand or love.
Walking, lifting each fabric-heavy foot consumed in those chunky old clay covered work boots, he pushes out a fart, not laughing at its sound. He hock-coughs thick spit to spray on the ground – marking his territory, not unlike a dog having ventured outside his own yard.
He crosses a clearing, a meadow, then a creek by way of a fallen tree eager to be his bridge; it’s slime- and moss-covered, so he’s careful but not too careful in this crossing, because he’s seen his brothers, his uncle, and his father, and knows that men are never too cautious even when they are careful. When he lands on the other side, something tense inside him eases – only slightly, so as not to diminish the experience of bravery that a bit of fear provides.
He arrives: a great poplar reaching into the sky, ten feet around, a million feet high. Nailed up plywood make the rungs of the ladder, and with the first grip he wishes he had stolen, too, a pair of leather work gloves to keep the splinters from prickling his palms. Despite the sting he pulls himself up, forward, and on.
One rung after another: shards of wood collecting in his tender hands, his knuckles turning white, his palms and fingers turning red; climbing into the grey-blue sky, looking as dusk as it does dawn – only the birds can distinguish the two, cheering him on with their morning songs.
From the top he sees the earth below, as god might if he were looking; that is, with power and silence through the scope of a rifle. The gun directs his eyes, and his hands direct the gun, both moved in part by his ears responding to rustling below – turning swiftly his shoulders and trying not to lock his elbows.
He knows not to fire a shot that won’t make a kill – because, one, men don’t waste bullets; two, you scare away the deer; and three, at this hour his mother and father might hear – notice he’s missing from that childish room, where his dolls and his toys feel like a tomb.
He doesn’t wear a watch – his parents suggested it wasn’t a proper thing – so he doesn’t count the hours on its hands, he just counts his breaths and waits, trying to minimize fidgeting, itching, wiggling and coughing, until the perfect shot comes his way…
…then bang! His first deer is dead! And his ears memorise the sound of the gunfire through the trees, harnessing the echo, letting it mark him, becoming his symbol.
Down the ladder faster than he made it up, ignoring the pain in his palms, embracing the ringing in his ear, running to the twitching body of the deer; he meets the doe where she fell, he holds her head in its last moments – his brown eyes to her black ones, so much reflected there. He watches her die, acknowledging, “I made a good kill.”
After her last gasp, he sticks a finger in the wound, feeling the feeling of raw penetration, of warm and of wet, animal blood and his own sweat. Then he turns the doe on her back, and with a knife stolen from the cupboard below the gun rack, pierces her just above her swollen little lips and hidden pink anus – a cracking noise as he cuts upward through the sternum. One giant gash opens her to the world.
He is now the king, he thinks, not of everything but of at least these woods, this deer – this doe; he is the king of the logging roads! He knows, it takes a man to be king. Only, the echo, the blast, the adrenaline and fear, all deafen him to the same world to which he was so closely attuned; he is disconnected in his rule!
Pulling organs out from under her breast, one by one, gutting the creature and making plans for her skin, for mounting her head. Tunnel vision: his kingdom fades to blackness; there is nothing by her blood and his hands; the land is a silent nothing swallowing him up like the pants he’s too small to occupy. And in this void he hears his mother calling.
Her voice coming closer, his arms elbow deep in carcass, digging for the soul: mother, closer – mother, closer – mother, closer… And all he wants now is to pull out the heart…but then she is on him…her hands on his shoulders…shaking and crying… She says, “Daughter, why?”
But he doesn’t answer, because men don’t have to answer.